One of the fundamental principles of most religions is acknowledging a higher power. Most practitioners visit a house of worship or create a sacred space of their own to honor this power. For others, they build spiritual shrines.
Spirit shrines are a part of an ancient Animism practice and a cultural tradition found in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand. Thailand art and cultural researchers say that the majority of Thai people practice Buddhism that’s influenced by such animistic rituals. These shrines are said to provide a home for spirits and bring “prosperity, peace, and protection” to the people living or working inside.
Such spiritual shrines are in the shape of miniature structures and can be found on pillars in the yards of rural homes and businesses. Or, if space is limited, they can be found on rooftops or terraces in urban locations.
In Thailand these shrines are usually in pairs, one for ancestors and another for guardians:
Ancestral spirit shrine (Sarn Chao Tii or San Jao Tii): They’re also known as the “abode of the spirit lord of the land.” These shrines are commonly shaped like a traditional Thai house and made from various materials like wood, clay or concrete. Inside the house there are usually figurines of a woman and man to represent the ancestors.
Guardian spirit shrine (Sarn Phra Phum or San Pra Phoom): They’re also known as the “abode of the land’s guardian angel.” They traditionally look like temples and are placed higher than other shrines out of respect for the guardians. There are nine Phra Phums or guardians and each protects different things like rivers, forests, houses and shops.
Erecting a spirit shrine is a sacred ritual and is commonly led by a Braham priest known as a Chao Pitee. They lead prayers and recite incantations to plead the spirits to make the shrines their home. They may also sprinkle holy water on the shrine or use “anointing white powder.” The residences then make routine offerings to honor the spirits. These offerings often include flowers, coins, food, and candles.
With these shrines millions of people are able to honor the past while connecting with their own spirituality. To learn more about spirit houses visit the Asian Art Museum website and their helpful handout.